Leaning on Pakistan Can Get Abandoned Afghans to Safety

Afghan refugees sit around a makeshift tent shelter on the outskirts of Quetta, Pakistan, on Sept. 6, 2021. Banaras Khan/AFP via Getty Images
Afghan refugees sit around a makeshift tent shelter on the outskirts of Quetta, Pakistan, on Sept. 6, 2021. Banaras Khan/AFP via Getty Images

With a new, albeit shaky, government in Pakistan under Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, the U.S. government has an opening to resolve one of the most pressing issues lingering after its withdrawal from Afghanistan: completing the evacuation of its former Afghan employees who remain at risk under Taliban rule. The rifts that have divided Pakistan and the United States, varying from Islamabad’s long-standing support for the Taliban to Chinese military and economic cooperation, are unlikely to recede in the near term. But such an effort would be a small but important confidence-building step in repairing the relationship.

Many of the U.S. government’s former employees in Afghanistan remain at risk. In August 2021, the U.S. government evacuated around 124,000 Afghans from Kabul. Yet it still, by its own estimation, left at least 60,000 Afghans behind who had worked for the U.S. government and were eligible for the Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program—a significant population the evacuation was intended to support. Since August, those left behind have faced one of the worst humanitarian crises in modern history, with little to no access to food and medicine as they hide from house-to-house searches by the Taliban. Some have been murdered as they awaited evacuation.

After the withdrawal, the U.S. State Department continued to evacuate small numbers of SIV recipients, American citizens, and green card holders via aircraft chartered from Kabul to Doha, Qatar. However, in early December 2021, the Taliban revoked permission to operate the flights unless Qatar agreed to transport Afghan migrant workers that could later earn and remit funds for support to the struggling Afghan economy. Complicating matters further, Afghanistan’s airports are barely functional, with no radar, air traffic control, or de-icing available to support winter flights.

When that dispute temporarily subsided, the State Department successfully chartered an additional flight in January, but the Taliban again halted flights over new disputes. In total, less than 3,000 deserving Afghans been evacuated despite the massive backlog. At that rate, it will take more than a decade to evacuate the remaining SIV applicants and their families. And even as flights from Afghanistan resume, the fickleness of the Taliban and instability of the arrangement will severely constrain the evacuation pipeline.

The U.S. government has options it can leverage to rapidly pick up the pace. First, it can increase the currently limited capacity offered by the lone remaining visa processing area in Qatar to facilitate larger numbers of evacuees. Second, it can open an additional evacuation route through Pakistan that can more reliably facilitate a steady stream of evacuations that will save lives.

In fall 2021, the U.S. government operated processing facilities at military bases throughout the Middle East and the United States to provide housing and food to evacuees awaiting visas—a necessary step before launching their new lives as Americans. All but one of those facilities—As Sayliyah Army Base in Qatar—have since been closed, dramatically reducing capacity to support evacuated Afghans and creating a bottleneck that has limited the pace of flights. The U.S. government can create additional capacity by expanding its facility in Qatar or opening new ones at other U.S. bases in willing countries. Where allies potentially hosting such facilities are reticent, the State Department can prioritize the evacuation in bilateral relationships and engage diplomatically to persuade such allies.

The Taliban’s unwillingness to allow flights with any regularity make evacuation from a neighboring country the only reliable means for a long-term pipeline. With Iran uninterested in helping the United States and Central Asian countries closing their borders with Afghanistan—and under Russian pressure to avoid cooperation with the United States—the U.S. government should look to Pakistan.

Pakistan offers multiple advantages that make it an attractive partner to scale evacuations. Afghanistan shares a long and porous border with Pakistan with two major crossings officially open to Afghans. Hundreds of SIV applicants, including many who have received visas or are advanced in the visa process, have already migrated to Pakistan, where the United States maintains a large embassy that can process such applicants in robust numbers.

Even under the recently ousted government of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan—which had grown increasingly hostile to the United States—Pakistan demonstrated willingness, though limited, to facilitate evacuations. In fall 2021, Pakistan granted entry visas to Afghan SIV applicants and allowed others who crossed illegally to depart the country. The timing of engagement with Pakistan is also more optimal now than any time in the past decade as its new government under Sharif seeks to develop a constructive relationship with the United States.

Sharif faces significant economic challenges in Pakistan. And to be sure, looming elections limit the extent to which he can incur political risk; Khan remains popular in Pakistan. Khan’s allegations that the no-confidence vote was the result of a U.S.-led conspiracy to interfere in Pakistani politics complicate substantial engagement with the United States, which must be careful not to give credibility to such claims.

Yet Pakistan’s parliament is investigating the tales of conspiracy and is likely to expose their farcical nature. Moreover, with moderate leaders like Chief of Army Staff Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa at the helm of Pakistan’s military, Sharif, who has spoken publicly in favor of improved relations with the United States, has the support of the army, the most critical faction needed to take steps toward at least a limited reset. Assisting a U.S. evacuation would be a simple but significant way to improve cooperation.

As a result, any evacuation plan at scale is likely to raise concerns in Pakistan’s government, but these can be mitigated by careful planning.

First, given the influx of more than 300,000 Afghan refugees since August 2021—on top of the 1.4 million refugees already there—an evacuation of those who might otherwise remain in or flee to Pakistan would align with Pakistan’s interests. Pakistan is concerned the United States may not ultimately grant visas to those Afghans who Pakistan allows to enter, leaving it strained with new refugees that weigh on its struggling economy and government services. To mitigate this, the U.S. State Department can request Pakistan entry visas only for those SIV applicants at later stages of the visa process and who are therefore highly likely to receive visas.

Second, the U.S. State Department can hire local contractors to house and transport SIV passengers from border crossings directly to designated airports for charter flights. By maintaining control over those who enter at the United States’ request, Pakistan could be assured that additional refugees do not overstay their visas and validate departures. And by hiring local contractors, the evacuation effort would contribute to Pakistan’s economy.

Similarly, the U.S. State Department can contract with Pakistan International Airlines, the country’s flag carrier, to conduct charter flights to Qatar or other countries where SIV applicants can be housed. Amid the pandemic and economic recession gripping Pakistan’s airlines, this spending would help shore up a symbol of national pride during a critical downturn in revenue.

Finally, combined with more processing capacity, these flights could be launched on a regular schedule, significantly increasing the pace at which the U.S. government saves the lives of its allies in danger. Given the humanitarian crisis unfolding inside Afghanistan, the ongoing retribution of the Taliban against SIV applicants, and Pakistani government’s opening, the time to act is now.

Philip Caruso is chairman and acting executive director of No One Left Behind.

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